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From Annette To Bieber: Teen Idols Then And Now

Teenage stars, from Annette Funicello to Justin Bieber. What is their role in, for, society?

 This 1955 file photo provided by Walt Disney Co., shows Annette Funicello, a "Mouseketeer" on Walt Disney's TV series the "Mickey Mouse Club." (AP/Disney) Canadian singer Justin Bieber performs on stage during the "I Believe Tour " in Berlin, Germany, Sunday, March 31, 2013. (AP)

This 1955 file photo provided by Walt Disney Co., shows Annette Funicello, a “Mouseketeer” on Walt Disney’s TV series the “Mickey Mouse Club.” (AP/Disney) Canadian singer Justin Bieber performs on stage during the “I Believe Tour ” in Berlin, Germany, Sunday, March 31, 2013. (AP)

Annette Funicello died this week at 70.  She was twelve years old when Walt Disney made her a Mickey Mouse Club star.  So squeaky clean she didn’t show her belly button when it came to Beach Blanket Bingo.

Not so for the latest generation of onetime Disney stars.  Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens break out hot and rough in Spring Breakers.  From Shirley Temple to Funicello to Lindsey Lohan to Justin Bieber, there’s a pattern in what we want and what we get in child stars, teen stars.

This hour, On Point:  the role and the arc of the very young in stardom.

-Tom Ashbrook


Jane O’Connor, senior lecturer and research fellow in Childhood and Family Studies at the University of Wolverhampton. Author of “The Cultural Significance of the Child Star.”

Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.

From Tom’s Reading List

CNN “Annette Funicello, one of the best-known members of the original 1950s ‘Mickey Mouse Club’ and a star of numerous 1960s ‘beach party’ films, died Monday at a California hospital, the Walt Disney Co. said. Funicello, who was 70, ‘died peacefully from complications due to multiple sclerosis, a disease she battled for over 25 years,’ the Disney statement said.”‘

Washington Post “Despite the films’ mildly naughty titles, Ms. Funicello’s clean-cut reputation remained intact. ‘Go ahead and have fun — the good, clean fun,’ Ms. Funicello recalled Disney saying. ‘But I have one request. I know everyone will be bikini-clad. I’d like you to look different. Would you wear a one-piece suit, or if it’s a two-piece, please don’t expose your navel.’”

USA Today “In a note on her Facebook page, Jada Pinkett Smith is sticking up for Justin Bieber and Quvenzhane Wallis, and any other young star in the media today. She writes: ‘How can we ask for our young stars to have a high level of responsibility if we are not demonstrating that same level of responsibility towards them?’”

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  • creaker

    “Teenage stars, from Annette Funicello to Justin Bieber. What is their role in, for, society?”

    They are considered a resource to be exploited to make someone a lot of money. Any impact, good or bad, to society or to the stars themselves is largely a nonissue to those using them. End of story.

  • sam

    I never really had a crash on teen idol, but oh boy did I have a crash on Mark Hamill in the role of Luke Skywalker.

    Even now it makes me grin and blush – thinking about some of the scenes from Star Wars ep4.

    Especially the scene where he is standing over the dusty sunset.
    Sad moment, but boy did he look hot!

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/JXSANCUDPIKQSPID5KT2U4XK5Y TF

    Bieber seems to be in control of his own career (along with what seems to have been reliable adult help before he was of age).

    In contrast, are the contracts for becoming Mouseketeers total giveaways to Disney?

  • nlpnt

    Annette on TV in her Disney prime vs. Bieber dealing with paparazzi at a career stage where he’s trying to move beyond the tween-pop phase is really an apples-and-oranges comparison.

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/JXSANCUDPIKQSPID5KT2U4XK5Y TF

      Yep. Can’t keep ‘em locked up in childhood forever.

      Actually I’m thinking more about the whole arc of childhood stardom to the point that whenever a kid star gets to adulthood as happy and healthy, it’s a bit of a miracle.

      (And I see the guest is saying this right now.)

  • creaker

    It’s a different world – can you imagine reality TV sitting next to to the Mickey Mouse Club and Leave it to Beaver?

  • geraldfnord

    Daughters and parents always seem to be more involved with teen idols than sons. It’s also seemed to me that mothers and fathers want male teen idols to be somewhat sexless and otherwise non-threatening—lots of teens’ mothers’ favourite Beatles were Paul and Ringo, but never John. By contrast, I think there has always been attendant to female teen stars more than a touch of what the Japanese call ‘Rori-con’, after their transliteration of ‘Lolita Complex’, appealing (whether they wish or no) to fathers’ complicated feelings about a child who resembles a woman for whom they once fell, but less ravaged by time and care. This is not to say that all fathers pine for incest, but its virtual shadow is inescapable—the father’s reaction to his daughter’s first boy-friends is an obvious combination to that of a protector and of a rival.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1035261417 Leni Sorensen

    I a 70 year old African American woman and I was not at all attracted to the Mousecateers as I saw not one child of color in the cast – as far as I was concerned it wasn’t a program meant for me.  Most of the black child stars I had seen were used as dupes and racist humor such as in the Rascals and other movies.  The Beach movies later didn’t change my evaluation.  The child stars I remember most were Jackie Lyman, Stevie Wonder, and other young black singers.

    • nj_v2

      One might hope that the racial aspects your raise about  this topic would be discussed on the program.

  • Jim

    i have a fact about teen idols… their lifespan will likely be very short compare with the mass populace.

  • http://www.facebook.com/emily.h.lacroix Emily Harvey Lacroix

    I’m really excited about Girl Meets World. All kids TV shows now seem to be about show business, which is unrealistic for most kids and causes more sexing-up of girls.

    Girl Meets World, like its predecessor, promises to be about real life, which has plenty of drama.

    • nlpnt

      Disney has a few non-show-business themed shows – “Lab Rats” is a fairly standard comedy-sci-fi high concept, “Kickin’ It” is about a group of kids who take karate lessons together, “Zeke and Luther” about skateboarders…all air on the higher-cable-tier and explicitly aimed at boys “Disney XD” network and only occasionally show up on the main Disney Channel. 
      Which kind of proves your point.

  • nancy_montagna

    I think there’s a difference between Shirley Temple and the child stars, like Annette Funicelli Justin Bieber, who came later.  Shirley Temple was adored by all, adults and children.  The others have depended on audiences of their own age. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1843096380 Vera Scott

    It is important to remember that Jackie Coogan was exploited by his family.  His parents spend nearly all of the money he made as a child and he was broke when he reached adulthood. The law protecting child stars is named after him. 

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/JXSANCUDPIKQSPID5KT2U4XK5Y TF

    Thompson’s remarking about the smart-mouthed Stewie in “Family Guy”: I’m sure he recognizes the shield of animation at work, plus the audacity of childhood.

    The “viewer discretion” angle of animation on TV is one thing, but I hazard to think that a live-acting grownup on a network prime time show could say what Stewie says in the quantity he says it every week.

    • nlpnt

      Yes, as he was describing Stewie I mentally added “…who hangs out with a talking dog”.

    • geraldfnord

      ‘audacity of childhood’
      A cat may look at a King…note that for all his bluster, Stewie has never killed a recurring character, only what the gamers call ‘NPC’s who count even less than Enterprise security officers.

      • http://profile.yahoo.com/JXSANCUDPIKQSPID5KT2U4XK5Y TF

        Yep. His weird out-of-nowhere Englishy accent, and his highfaluting vocabulary add on to that way adults will forgive little tots saying things that they won’t let grown-ups do.

        Did I mention I’m wearing a red tunic and beaming down to a hostile planet right now? Wish me luck!

  • nancy_montagna

    I think there is an important difference between Shirley Temple and the other child stars you talk about.  Shirley Temple was adored by adults.  The others depend on audience of their own age.

  • nj_v2


    Looking at the photo of young Annette, i wonder what percentage of her eyebrow hairs would have to be plucked out to conform to today’s “standards.”

  • geraldfnord

    Here’s a question: why is so much of their material and many of their performances (to use a technical term) crappy, even by the low standards of pop? Maybe the producers feel that it doesn’t _need_ to be any better, and quality costs.

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/JXSANCUDPIKQSPID5KT2U4XK5Y TF

      It’s true that “quality costs” (most all the time).

      If only the inverse were true: A lot of effort and money doesn’t guarantee quality.

      And I’m curious if there are any songwriters doing kiddie stuff now who will break out on their own performing careers, analagous to the Brill Building types (Neil Diamond and Carole King and others). I know it’s an inexact comparison, but one can hope.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=580405767 Tony Dollars

    Great show. I have considered this discussion for some time and am grateful I turned in to hear these great responses to Tom’s questions!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=580405767 Tony Dollars

    How can I get to the playback version?

  • mlongbrake

    Hi Tom,
    I am a former Cambridge, MA resident, now living out in CA.  I love your show and still tune in out west!  This is not a comment on today’s show, but a suggestion for a future one.

    Have you ever touched on the topic of customer service and how it is affected by company size, technology, etc.?  The reason I ask is because I have been disputing a bill with a very large and global company for the past 9 months.  While their representatives are perfectly polite on the phone, there appears to be no communication between departments, and no connection between what they say will happen and what their software allows them to do.  In short, it seems good old fashioned customer service not only seems a thing of the past, but even when it is attempted, the computer seems to be programmed against it.  At the same time, companies like Zappos have somehow got the formula correct.  I have now given up calling and am going straight to the top – yes, the CEO – in the form of snail mail because I am not sure how else to make myself heard. I’d be curious to hear more about what makes or breaks good customer service in this day and age. Thanks!

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